A Cold Comfort

There was some­thing of a doozy at Mon­day’s Sen­ate Judi­cia­ry hear­ing with for­mer Direc­tor of Nation­al Intel­li­gence James Clap­per and for­mer Act­ing Attor­ney Gen­er­al Sal­ly Yates:

[Nebras­ka Sen­a­tor Ben] SASSE[R]: Direc­tor, do you stand by the IC’s Jan­u­ary assess­ment that Wik­iLeaks is a known pro­pa­gan­da plat­form for Rus­sia?

CLAPPER: Absolute­ly, and I am in agree­ment with Direc­tor Pom­peo’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Wik­iLeaks as a non-nation state intel­li­gence ser­vice.

There is, to put it gen­tly, over­whelm­ing con­sen­sus with­in the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty that Wik­ileaks is act­ing, essen­tial­ly, as a front for the Russ­ian intel­li­gence ser­vices. More­over, the argu­ment Clap­per is sup­port­ing in this tes­ti­mo­ny is that Wik­ileaks act­ed in that capac­i­ty to influ­ence the elec­tion to mar­gin­al­ize Hillary Clin­ton and to help Don­ald Trump get elect­ed.

This is no real sur­prise if you’ve been fol­low­ing the news at all recent­ly. But it nev­er­the­less res­onates with me deeply. In a num­ber of ways, my for­mer career (as a jour­nal­ist, com­men­ta­tor, pun­dit, what have you) was pred­i­cat­ed on my ear­ly crit­i­cism of Wik­ileaks for its reck­less pat­tern of only leak­ing against west­ern, lib­er­al Democ­ra­cies (start­ing with the US and even­tu­al­ly mor­ph­ing into the UK, Ger­many, and France). To dri­ve that point home, here is sev­en­teen min­utes of me debat­ing John Meachem on PBS Need to Know, in 2010, about how dan­ger­ous and mis­lead­ing their leak­ing activ­i­ty is:

I could rehash the next sev­er­al years of argu­ments but it is not real­ly worth the space — need­less to say, you can find all that with some very sim­ple web search­es. As the orga­ni­za­tion and its boost­ers became aware of my crit­i­cism — com­ing as it did from spe­cif­ic knowl­edge (in the case of Afghanistan) and exper­tise its fan club sim­ply lacked (in the case of mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence issues) — so too did the nether regions of the Inter­net emerge to “audit” my pub­lic and pri­vate life in search of weak­ness­es.

When Wik­ileaks “out­ed” me in 2013 as a gov­ern­ment con­trac­tor — at the time, I trad­ed open­ly on my pre­vi­ous jobs work­ing in the defense indus­try, so the charge was impo­tent —  the debate over their role in the pub­lic had reached a fever pitch: not only had the orga­ni­za­tion helped Chelsea Man­ning leak hun­dreds of thou­sands of sen­si­tive doc­u­ments, but they had also assist­ed Edward Snow­den pil­fer mil­lions more of the most sen­si­tive doc­u­ments the nation pos­sess­es and was pub­lish­ing them all over the world. It was, for me as it was for them, an intense peri­od.

Their out­ing caused mas­sive per­son­al tur­moil I’ve rarely, if ever, dis­cussed pub­licly. It was cheered on by a famous­ly men­da­cious bul­ly who ampli­fied its effects beyond a scale I had ever expe­ri­enced before. Peo­ple tried to hack into my email, my bank account, my social media accounts, and my health­care records. There were phish­ing attempts on my cred­it cards, and I noticed some Paste­bins where peo­ple attempt­ed to “dox” me — that is, pub­lish my home address and phone num­bers as an open­ing move for more vio­lent forms of abuse like Swat­ting and fal­si­fy­ing police reports for crimes like rape.

I was, in a word, ter­ri­fied. At the time I thought I could nav­i­gate an online dust up, thanks to a run-in with anoth­er aggres­sive bul­ly the year before. In 2012 a hate-filled, abu­sive man decid­ed to “destroy” me by mis­quot­ing a bunch of my writ­ing, mock­ing a col­lege live­jour­nal post on Columbine I had delet­ed years ear­li­er but which still exist­ed at the time on Web Archive, and call­ing me fat. It was unpleas­ant, espe­cial­ly the homo­pho­bic angle many of his fans adopt­ed, but with­in a week or two it passed (for the most part). For con­text, this was over a dis­pute about how many inno­cent peo­ple the police in Zhanaozen, Kaza­khstan, had mur­dered dur­ing a labor protest.

When Julian Assange direct­ed anoth­er swarm of trolls at me the fol­low­ing year, I was a bit more pre­pared. I had already scrubbed most infor­ma­tion I could think of from the inter­net, but I knew there would be things I had missed. Get­ting the alerts from my finan­cial insti­tu­tions and email provider about attempts to recov­er my pass­word and PIN prompt­ed me to involve the FBI to gain law enforce­ment vis­i­bil­i­ty into my options should some­thing bad hap­pen; I con­sult­ed friends who run infor­ma­tion secu­ri­ty firms on how to pro­tect myself. It was har­row­ing. I sur­vived, but it effec­tive­ly scared me into silence. Con­trol­ling a swarm of abu­sive trolls is its own form of cen­sor­ship.

(There is prob­a­bly anoth­er sto­ry in there about how many on the Left seem just fine with vicious, per­son­al­ly destruc­tive male fig­ures who brag about their sex­u­al abuse of women — some­thing Assange has in com­mon with my harass­er from 2012 — if they express the “right” type of left­wing polit­i­cal beliefs, but that is prob­a­bly a dis­cus­sion for lat­er.)

Just a few days after Assange issued his false accu­sa­tion that I was some sort of plant for the defense indus­try, I final­ly pub­lished a post that had eat­en up a lot of my time — an explo­ration of how Wik­ileaks, and Julian Assange in par­tic­u­lar, had extreme­ly close ties to the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment. This was, of course, the “bomb­shell” that Gen­er­al Clap­per dropped in his tes­ti­mo­ny on Mon­day.

I think I was the first per­son to have made this con­nec­tion based on the chain of analy­sis and evi­dence. Yet, the piece land­ed with a bit of a thud: peo­ple were intrigued by it, but were, for the most part, much more caught up with the roman­tic image of Assange as a rogue tak­ing on the big bad U.S. gov­ern­ment to care. Few act­ed on it, most edi­tors shrugged, and none of the reporters I reached out to want­ed to dis­cuss it.

It was, in hind­sight, the penul­ti­mate straw on my back. A series of fol­low up pieces, includ­ing a detailed essay about the chal­lenge the NSA had in recruit­ing hack­ers I am still very proud of, sim­ply went nowhere. No one cared. It was a dead top­ic, and the hive­mind of jour­nal­ism and pun­dit­ry had decid­ed on who the heroes and vil­lains were, and they had decid­ed that I was wrong about the vil­lains. All I got for the trou­ble was a long-tail of trolls on Twit­ter that con­tin­ued for months on end (I even­tu­al­ly wound up writ­ing a script in python to block net­works of them; the list even­tu­al­ly topped 10,000 blocked accounts before I delet­ed my Twit­ter account).

The finan­cial stress­es of free­lance writ­ing may have been tol­er­a­ble, but the psy­cho­log­i­cal cost of exert­ing tremen­dous effort to uncov­er a rather jaw-drop­ping sto­ry and receiv­ing in return lit­tle more than abuse were such that I tran­si­tioned into the com­mu­ni­ca­tions field just a few months lat­er and even­tu­al­ly quit Twit­ter for good.

In many ways, my con­fronta­tion with Wik­ileaks both defined and destroyed my career as a writer. I still write essays on occa­sion, but that sum­mer of 2013 marked the end of my time doing any sort of tru­ly newsy pun­dit­ry (rare excep­tions notwith­stand­ing).

Some months ago, I learned from a friend-of-a-friend who works in the gov­ern­ment that he appre­ci­at­ed the work I did back then. He told me, in a sur­pris­ing­ly casu­al man­ner, that my work had helped him in his own job, and that it had some mea­sur­able impact on the world as they worked to repair the dam­age those years of leak­ing had inflict­ed upon the coun­try.

It was a rather cold com­fort. My mood that night, which was buoy­ant from see­ing old friends after a long absence, crashed, and I spent the remain­der of the evening in a con­tem­pla­tive funk. Hear­ing that encour­age­ment for a job well done years after it would have mat­tered is almost a mock­ery — it came far too late to have had any real effect on my life, though it does offer a tiny bit of clo­sure to seal off what­ev­er lin­ger­ing ten­drils of that time may have stub­born­ly stuck to my sub­con­scious.

Even now, I can hear the mock­ing tweets, upon read­ing the last two para­graphs, accus­ing me of some­how secret­ly work­ing for the gov­ern­ment while I bare­ly eked out a mar­gin­al exis­tence in a claus­tro­pho­bic apart­ment and con­stant­ly wor­ried about pay­ing bills. The mem­o­ry of such rit­u­al­is­tic attacks is both sil­ly and har­row­ing — it is one rea­son I speak about this part of my life so rarely in pub­lic.

Mon­day’s Sen­ate tes­ti­mo­ny was not the first time I have been remind­ed that I was basi­cal­ly right about a con­tro­ver­sial nation­al secu­ri­ty top­ic, despite my career end­ing up in a sham­bles because of it. When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, it is a rou­tine occur­rence, and one I sus­pect will become more rou­tine should Pres­i­dent Trump fol­low through on his promise to re-expand the war there.

I have tried to account for the things I got wrong, like the war in Iraq. But how should you approach some­thing you got right, when that seemed only to hurt you? Four years lat­er, there is some grat­i­fi­ca­tion for hear­ing the DNI say what was, to me, quite obvi­ous years ear­li­er: that Wik­ileaks and Julian Assange are a cut out for Russ­ian intel­li­gence and their goal is to, essen­tial­ly, destroy the lib­er­al world order. But that grat­i­fi­ca­tion does­n’t get me any­thing. I was right about Wik­ileaks, but I was nev­er­the­less pun­ished — per­son­al­ly, pro­fes­sion­al­ly, and so on. Oppor­tu­ni­ties are per­ma­nent­ly closed to me as a con­se­quence of that sum­mer in 2013, that should have, in the­o­ry, been open. Being right did­n’t get me any­thing — if any­thing, it made me lose out.

Two years ago, I took note that being right about a few top­ics in this are­na did not count for much: it nev­er helped me ascend the lad­der of my career, because that ascent was nev­er pred­i­cat­ed on being right, but on being friends with the right peo­ple (it’s called “net­work­ing”). More­over, the peo­ple who were con­clu­sive­ly proven wrong nev­er­the­less prof­it­ed from it, and remained in posi­tions of pow­er despite being wrong. That is still true today.

Suc­cess and progress, at least in Wash­ing­ton, are decou­pled from one’s skills or knowl­edge. DC, much like New York and Los Ange­les, runs on its own form of social cap­i­tal such that actu­al­ly call­ing some­thing cor­rect­ly is not the most impor­tant attrib­ut­es of a per­son (just as the most tal­ent­ed actors don’t always become famous, or the most tal­ent­ed writ­ers don’t always become best-sell­ing authors). That has been a hard les­son to learn the last few years, and as my dis­tance from that world has grown I have seen it with more and more clar­i­ty.

Yet as I look ahead to what is going on in DC right now, it is hard for me to feel any­thing beyond sad­ness. So much of what has hap­pened and is cur­rent­ly embroil­ing the coun­try was avoid­able if only those in charge (of the gov­ern­ment, of the Con­gress and Sen­ate, of the trade rags, of the media, etc.) had both­ered to lis­ten. But every­one was con­cerned with oth­er things, whether a trib­al par­ti­san­ship or some sort of noble pur­pose that only appears scrutable to some inner cir­cle most of us can nev­er see. But it was­n’t avoid­ed. Our cur­rent mess was blun­dered into by peo­ple who should know bet­ter, who spent years chas­ing away peo­ple who knew bet­ter and tried to warn them, and now we’re left with the uncer­tain­ty of what comes next.

I wish I had an answer. But I don’t think there is any such thing as being right about this any­more. We know what hap­pened, and we have a fair­ly good idea of what is com­ing, and I still strug­gle to see why it should mat­ter. I’m grate­ful that peo­ple are final­ly warm­ing to the warn­ing sig­nals from a half-decade ago, but there are pre­cious few rea­sons to think that they will get any of it right thing time around.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.